With NASA’s satellites down, scientists have to travel low and slow over Greenland’s glaciers to measure melting ice. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with science reporter Dan Grossman who hitched a ride on the science plane and also talks with NASA scientist Lora Koenig.
GELLERMAN: Greenland is a remote, beautiful, brutal place - a land of rock and ice, and quite possibly a lot of oil and gas buried below that could become available as global warming melts the island. Ironically, it’s the burning of fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect that is causing Greenland’s icy mountains to melt. The question is: just how fast are Greenland’s glaciers melting?
GELLERMAN: Science journalist Dan Grossman traveled to Greenland to find out.
There he hitched a ride with NASA scientists on a special P 3 B turboprop and recorded this sound as they flew over the icy island. Dan is a colleague, friend and neighbor, and he joins us from somewhere in Greenland - where are you exactly, Dan?
GROSSMAN: Well I'm in Kagerlussuag, Greenland, which is on the west coast of Greenland, and it’s basically pretty much in the middle of the coast - sort of halfway from the top to the bottom.
GELLERMAN: So what do you do there, when you’re in Greenland? What are you observing? What are you watching?
GROSSMAN: Well, NASA has a mission here called Operation IceBridge, which is a series of flights that go up and down the ice sheet measuring different aspects of the ice sheet with various electronic instruments. They’re actually doing the same thing with the same airplane in Antarctica. The flight lasts eight hours, and I sit there watching the scientists at work, making video recordings out the window - they have one special window, which is for photography.
GELLERMAN: So what does it look like, Dan? Is it boring? I mean, you’re on a plane for, like, eight hours a day, right?
GROSSMAN: Well, you’re probably - in your mind - you’re imagining that the ice sheet is just a smooth cake of ice. And near the middle of the Greenland ice sheet, it is fairly smooth, although it has undulations. But at the edges, it’s not like that at all - it’s full of crevasses, there are mountains sticking up out of it, there are folds in the ice that you can see.
And there are all sorts of deep ripples in the ice. The plane actually has to go up and down to take into account the topography of the ice. So it’s not just a smooth flight over a featureless white surface by any stretch of the imagination.
GELLERMAN: Hey, Dan, is there a scientist nearby that I can talk to?
GROSSMAN: Yeah, just hold on one sec, I’ll go get her. I’m gonna get Laura Koenig, who is the deputy chief scientist of Operation IceBridge, and she’s a cryospheric scientist.
GROSSMAN: I’m gonna put her on.
[GROSSMAN TALKING TO KOENIG: Okay, just hang on a second - his name is Bruce Gellerman. KOENIG: Bruce Gellerman…]
KOENIG: Okay, hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Hi, Dr. Koenig!
KOENIG: How are you?
GELLERMAN: I’m good! What’s a cryospheric scientist?
A view of the Greenland ice sheet. (Photo: Dan Grossman)
KOENIG: A cryospheric scientist is actually a very lucky job that I have. I get to study the frozen areas of the earth. So I actually focus on the ice sheets, both Greenland and Antarctica. Other scientists that study the cryosphere also study sea ice, as well as snow and mountain glaciers.
GELLERMAN: Now why do you have to fly over Greenland? It sounds so old-fashioned. Why don’t you just use satellites and do your surveys that way?
KOENIG: Well from 2003 to 2009, we were using a satellite - ICESat was the name of the satellite. In 2009, ICESat started to fail. We knew that the laser was losing power; it was a laser altimeter - measured the height of the ice sheet. ICESat had outlived its life. It was scheduled to be a satellite for five years, and it was up for six, almost seven years.
What we can do with the aircraft, and cannot do with satellite, is we can add additional instruments. So we fill up the aircraft - we have a suite of instruments that gives us a three-dimensional view of the ice sheet. We have radars that look deep into the ice sheet, even measuring the bed. We have gravimeters that measure gravity anomalies - those allow us to see through ice shelves, especially in Antarctica, and see what the water cavities below the ice look like. So we have an entire suite of instruments.
GELLERMAN: I know that you’re gathering data, but have you found evidence that the ice sheet is melting?
KOENIG: What we are seeing is a lowering of the ice sheet in most areas. So the ice sheet is indeed losing mass.
GELLERMAN: Is this unusual or is this what you would expect?
KOENIG: This is what we would expect as we’ve seen increasing temperatures over both the Arctic and Antarctic - we would expect the ice sheets to lose mass and begin melting.
GELLERMAN: Now Greenland is enormous, right, it’s massive. And most of it is ice. What percentage of that ice can we expect to melt in, say, fifty years?
KOENIG: I don’t know what the projections are in fifty years. I will say that the ice sheet of Greenland contains about seven meters of sea level rise if it were all to melt. We don’t expect it all to melt.
Science Journalist Dan Grossman (Photo: Dan Grossman)
Some of the projections right now are between a half-meter and a meter of sea level rise, so about a foot and a half to three feet of sea level rise by 2100. There is certainly reason to be concerned - much of the world’s population lives near the oceans, and as those oceans rise, we’ll continue to see problems associated with the higher sea level.
GELLERMAN: Well Dr. Laura Koenig, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.
KOENIG: Great, thank you for having me, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Laura Koenig is a cryospheric scientist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center - she’s a Deputy Head of Science at Operation IceBridge. Can I speak to Dan again?
GELLERMAN: So Dan…
GROSSMAN: Yeah! Hi!
GELLERMAN: Boy, thanks a lot, I really appreciate it - what’s next for you?
GROSSMAN: Well, you know, I’m…after I collect material up here in Greenland, I’m going down to Peru to do some reporting on melting of mountain glaciers in the Andes, so that’s my next project.
GELERMAN: Well, Dan, thank you very much!
GROSSMAN: Well thank you for having me on, Bruce!
GELLERMAN: Science journalist Dan Grossman, talking to us from Kagerlussuag, Greenland.
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